Feedback loops are important to games. It’s the experience points that keep us playing. It’s the gear that keeps us hunting. And it’s the story that keeps us guessing. Although Sea of Thieves lacks these crucial elements in its design, U.K.-based developer Rare makes up for that with the game’s singular idea: Sail the seven seas however you want, with whomever you want. But a singular idea isn’t enough to keep us playing the same rudimentary content for hours on end, and no matter how the game is looked at, Rare has crafted an experience that’s as wide as an ocean but only as deep as a puddle. And no amount of emergent gameplay or player agency can stave off the sense of déjà vu that arises from navigating Sea of Thieves’s barren world.
Sea of Thieves is an always-online, shared-world pirate adventure, and that’s it. Though the game alludes to three factions—the Gold Hoarders, the Merchant Alliance, and the Order of Souls—and something about Athena’s Fortune in the opening cutscene that plays every time you start up the game, there’s no end goal or narrative through line. Sea of Thieves doesn’t hold the player’s hand. It offers no tutorials. It doesn’t even give you a map. It just drops you into this world with no context and grants you almost infinite freedom, a respite from games cluttered with tutorials and icons for the player to chase. The game, by design, is meant to test your intuition. It heartily believes that if you aren’t thinking like a pirate, then you won’t be a pirate.
But such freedom is useless if it’s of no particular consequence. Throughout the game, you take on missions given to you by each of the three pirate factions: the Gold Hoarders want you to find and secure treasure chests; the Merchant Alliance requires you to pick up items for trade; and the Order of Souls needs you to gather skulls of possessed skeletons. And after the completion of each mission, the world only feels more empty because the progression for each voyage is always the same: get a map, sail to an island, collect the requested item, sail back to an outpost, exchange the item for gold. Rinse and repeat to ad infinitum. And though you gain reputation levels for completing voyages, don’t think these increased levels add variety to the quest structure: A level-five Order of the Souls voyage will play the same as a level one, only with two or three skulls needed to be collected instead of one.
After a while, fatigue sets in and you realize that you aren’t a pirate so much as an errand boy, sailing to and fro for a nominal reward from factions you never come to know. The gold you collect can be used to purchase customization items for you and your ship, but these are purely cosmetic, as the sword that cost you 20,000 gold does no more damage than the rusty blade you’re given at the beginning. There’s no incentive to buy these more expensive cosmetics when they don’t add to character progression and provide no additional attributes, making purchasing them entirely meaningless. It’s not as if your new telescope allows you to see further or your new pistol holds more bullets. There’s nothing wrong with fashion—pirates love exquisite guns, immaculate ships, and ornate swords—and it’s fine that the items are purely cosmetic, but why bother investing time and money on a change in appearance if Sea of Thieves, which is in first-person, doesn’t even allow you to take note of your transformation?
There’s potential here for a compelling pirate simulation, but at present the game is so predicated on multiplayer that single-player play isn’t even an enjoyable, viable option. In short, Sea of Thieves lacks for content. There’s no mission variety, despite there being three different factions ostensibly hoping to achieve different goals. There’s no enemy variety, outside of the variants of skeletons and sharks and, of course, other players. There are no NPC pirate ships to board, no cities or outposts to pillage, no real PVE or PVP encounters to engage with (other than a random Kraken encounter), and no rare booty to find. There aren’t even drinking games or chanties to learn. Hollywood would have us believe that being a pirate is sometimes extravagant, but Rare’s interpretation of the pirate life is mundane and tedious.